SPECIAL REPORT: Laughter therapy - Tucson News Now

Laughter therapy

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

There's something we all do that can instantly make us feel better, but apparently, we don't do it enough.

It's laugh.

You may not have heard, but there's a whole movement building around, believe it or not,. laughter.

Even modern medicine is jumping onboard.

It's a phenomenon spreading around the world.

Laughter Yoga.

If we're going to talk about laughter, we have to get serious.

That's because laughter can be a powerful weapon against stress, disease, pain, even depression.

There are plenty of things that make us laugh, but some people think we can't wait for those magical moments.

We have to make them ourselves.

Laughter Yoga does just that.

Watching a Laughter Yoga Club in action, you might think you would never do this, but wait until you hear what it might do for you.

Welcome to Laughter Yoga with Gita.

"Welcome, everybody. Thanks for coming," Gita Fendelman greets Laughter Yoga Club members.

She a former lawyer, former Hatha Yoga instructor, and...

"About 8 year ago, I got diagnosed with Parkinson's disease," Gita tells the group.

"And now I teach Laughter Yoga. Hahaha."

The club laughs.  Gita laughs in the face of Parkinson's disease.

Gita was searching for help for her condition.

Laughter Yoga was relatively new.

"The study that attracted me was one out of Stanford that said laughter stimulates the part of the brain that uses dopamine.  And because Parkinson's is characterized by low dopamine, I thought I'm going to use that for my medicine," Gita says. "It's a great pain reliever because it naturally lifts the body's endorphins."

"There's actually scientific studies nowadays that are proving that it strengthens the immune system, it's a cardiovascular workout. It's great if people are suffering from depression," says Gita.

Club member Mac McHenry has been coming to the Laughter Yoga Club for almost three years.

"Get rid of a lot of tension and stuff that was in my body that I suffered when I was depressed about my cancer," he says.

There's a method to what looks like madness.

Laughter Yoga uses the deep breathing and deep relaxation of yoga, but not the poses, so anyone can do it.

"I have emphysema. So I'm hopeful I will improve, but I'm not sure. At least I'll have a lot of fun trying," says club member Frank DiPietro.

Judy Jacobs suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash.

She was depressed.

"The benefit that I was looking for was to help elevate my mood and I had no idea that another benefit would be increased memory," Jacobs says.

Laughter Yoga's mission is joy, good health and world peace through laughter.

Some practitioners use Laughter Yoga to teach conflict resolution to young children.

Bullying prevention.

"To look someone in the eye that we might have not been thinking such great things about , but then all of a sudden now we're just having fun together, and it brings us closer," says Laughter Yoga instructor Emily Vance.

Some of the Laughter Yoga Club members were sent by their doctors.

And there are doctors who use the technique themselves, such as Dr. Gulshan Sethi, University of Arizona cardiothoracic surgeon.

"Some people just laugh. Hahaha," says Dr. Sethi. "I use laughter every day."

Dr. Sethi believes in laughter for himself and his patients.

He calls it an internal massage for your organs.

"I take laughter very seriously. It's a very serious topic," he says. "It is a treatment to prevent the disease process. And if you have developed a disease like depression, heart disease, then it is beneficial for that."

Dr. Sethi says laughter increases the number our cells that attack disease.

If you are one of his heart surgery patients, you are going to learn to laugh.

"When you laugh, you clear your lung. You don't have to use any machine to expand the lungs," says Dr. Sethi.  "My patients have noticed that it is easier to laugh than to use these extra machines." 

And it doesn't even have to be real laughter.

Gita likes to say, "Fake it 'til you make it."

Dr. Sethi says laughter's effects happen immediately, and may stick around for at least a day.

He has done research on laughter and he wants to do more, especially with veterans.

As a veteran himself, he wants to reach out to the military and  to the Veterans Administration to introduce laughter as a therapy.

"In the veterans who are coming back from Afghanistan, from Iraq, who are depressed. Their families have got problems and maybe this simple intervention may help them," says Dr. Sethi.

Dr. Sethi and Dr. Andrew Weil, Director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, are planning to go to Washington D.C. in June to speak with representatives of the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration about incorporating laughter into the lives of our military men and women and veterans.

They hope to study the effects on severe depression.

We asked Dr. Sethi how to do Laughter Yoga at home, in the office, anywhere.

Here's what he told us.

"What you do is that you laugh a few seconds. Then you take some deep breathing. Then you stretch. Then you laugh again. And this is what yoga laughter therapy is all about." 

 World Laughter Day is May first.

Tucson's celebration will be on the University of Arizona campus, between the Student Union and the Second Street Parking Garage, from noon until 1:00 p.m.

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